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This article was written by Gail Griffin, Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteer in Lee County.

If a fragrance could evoke a memory of childhood and take us back to our grandmother’s back yard, the smell of gardenias would be among the top five. Also known as Cape Jasmine in this part of central North Carolina, they have been planted here since the eighteenth century. Gardenia Jasminoides, a member of the coffee family, originated in China and has been cultivated there for over a thousand years.

Gardenias are woody shrubs whose varieties range in height from three to eight feet and can be up to six feet wide. Some dwarf forms are less than two feet tall and can be grown in a container or used as a ground cover. Leaves are glossy and remain evergreen. Flowers are a creamy white, can be a single or a double variety, and usually bloom from May through June and may rebloom over the summer months.

Gardenias are somewhat fussy about their location. They prefer acidic soil, so a soil test is highly recommended before planting. Plant in fall in light to partial shade with protection from afternoon sun. Amendments such as compost or pine bark can be added at this time to help adjust pH and improve drainage. They can be cold-sensitive, so try to locate them away from drying winter winds in a spot with good air circulation.

Pests of gardenias include whiteflies, aphids, scale, thrips, and spider mites. Beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps and ladybugs will help control many of these pests. Other measures include the use of horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps. Even a forceful spray with a water hose every few days will help decrease these populations
without using pesticides.

Leaf drop is a natural occurrence in spring before new growth begins. At other times, yellowing of leaves could indicate the plant is under some type of stress such as a lack of nutrients, improper watering, over-fertilization, infestation by insects, or environmental factors including soil temperature or insufficient light. Gardenias can be affected by various fungi causing plants to wilt and leaves or buds to drop resulting in conditions such as root rot, powdery mildew, and stem canker. Most can be prevented with good gardening practices. For more information, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension office or see this Clemson Cooperative Extension Factsheet.

Although gardenias are hardly maintenance-free, they can be successfully planted in landscapes such as pollinator or nighttime gardens where their fragrance and beauty can be appreciated. The late Don Williams, the Gentle Giant, has a line in a song remembering his childhood about “the smell of Cape Jasmine through the window screen.” Perhaps we all need to be reminded of those good days and those yet to come. Thanks Grandma.

Gail Griffin is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.